Hunt always had common touch

Updated: December 15, 2006, 1:58 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Lamar Hunt loved cheesecake. Who doesn't? So in his great desire to share during a Chiefs trip to Los Angeles several years ago, Hunt gathered together many dessert-loving Chiefs employees and VIPs in the hotel lobby for a trip to one of his favorite restaurants for cheesecake.

Naturally, the restaurant was packed, but the billionaire had the restaurant employees hopping to find a big table for the Hunt party. Once seated, the Hunt party awaited his order. So did the waiter, figuring he was going to score a big tab. To everyone's surprise, Hunt didn't order the menu. Instead, he ordered several slices of cheesecake and forks for everyone.

That anecdote symbolized Lamar Hunt, who died Wednesday night at age 74 from complications of cancer. He was a billionaire who lived like the common man. When limos were lined up at the airport awaiting the arrival of dignitaries for an NFL owners' meeting, Hunt would be with reporters at the rental car counter trying to find the right midsize car. Despite coming from one of the country's richest families, Hunt wasn't tainted by his billions. And he was all about sharing.

Tip your forks to a great American sportsman.

As the 1960s began, Hunt's cheesecake was pro football. He tried to get Dallas' NFL expansion franchise but was blocked by George Halas, who favored Clint Murchison. Instead of following the rest of his family, the son of oilman H.L. Hunt wanted to go into the sports business. Rejected by the NFL, the 27-year-old Hunt got a call from Ralph Wilson, the current Buffalo Bills owner. Wilson flew to Dallas for a meeting of the minds. Together, they started "The Foolish Club," a collection of eight owners crazy enough to form the American Football League to compete against the NFL. If you can't join them, try to beat them.

It wouldn't have been the Hunt way to get into football the conventional way. The AFL was an upstart league with bold ideas and modest pockets to pay for them. Hunt gave the league credibility. In times of trouble, he had the money to bail out teams. Being a good sportsman, Hunt once traded the Oakland Raiders a quarterback just because they didn't have one. He wanted a competitive league.

Hunt got the Dallas franchise of the AFL but didn't make money. His team won the 1962 championship, but Hunt moved the team to Kansas City, turning his Dallas Texans into the Kansas City Chiefs.

In helping set up the AFL, Hunt brought fresh ideas to pro football. Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle gets credit for the revenue-sharing concept that is the foundation of the league. The late Wellington Mara has been lionized -- and rightfully so -- for making the NFL work by his willingness to share the rich New York television market with his fellow owners. But both got the idea from Hunt and his AFL days. Whether the beneficiary was a cheesecake-loving colleague or a league striving to remain competitive, Hunt believed in sharing. As it turned out, Hunt, the moderate, also had enough credibility with NFL owners and Rozelle to broker the merger of the AFL and NFL.

The AFC Championship trophy bears his name, and it was only fitting that the first AFL-NFL championship game featured the Chiefs playing the Packers. Hunt is also credited with coining the term "Super Bowl" for the NFL's supreme game. He was inspired by watching his daughter play with a SuperBall, which is now displayed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Those achievements took place before my days covering the NFL. I will remember Hunt as the voice of change. He always had great ideas. Great ideas made the AFL work, but the NFL didn't need much work and owners as a rule didn't like change.

Each year, I would eagerly await the March agenda at the NFL owners' meeting to see proposed rules changes coming from the Chiefs. The agenda usually came with five to seven proposals, many thought-provoking and innovative, sponsored by Hunt.

For reporters, it was easy copy to preview the NFL owners' meeting even though we all realized most proposals were going to be voted down. You could call Hunt, who was always gracious enough to sell his concepts.

Where would the NFL be without them?

• Hunt pushed for instant replay, but many owners didn't like the cost of the system. Coaches didn't like it because they didn't want to risk timeouts. Eventually, Hunt won. So did the NFL.

• Hunt pushed for the two-point conversion. "That's college football," dissenters said. "We're a professional league." The idea finally was adopted in 1994.

• Hunt tried and failed to get conference championships played on neutral, warm-weather sites. He thought bad-weather title games gave too much advantage to a home team. Once again, that's the sportsman in him.

• Hunt never understood why teams paid 53 players but dressed only 46. The league contends dressing seven additional players is too much of an advantage for better teams. Each year, Hunt sponsored a proposal to play all the players.

• For the past several years, Hunt pushed for expanding the playoffs from 12 to 16 teams. Last season's Chiefs team won 10 games but didn't get a playoff berth. He thought 50 percent of the league should enjoy being in the playoffs, but Hunt was voted down.

On the last day of an NFL owners' meeting, reporters would seek out Hunt, who graciously talked about how it takes time to get things passed and how there was always next year. Because Chiefs president Carl Peterson is a loyal advocate of Hunt, I'm sure he will push Hunt's proposals until they pass.

But it won't be the same without him. We just lost one of the game's greatest sports.

John Clayton is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer